For reasons that I hope will be clear shortly, I have titled my words as “What are we to do with the Baptist?” John the Baptist, that is.
Having been at it for a while, I can say that preaching in the church is both the easiest and most difficult thing I’ve done.
On the one hand, preaching is easy because the source material is good. The people come expecting to listen and if one has any ability at all … at putting words together, something useful will eventually come out.
Preaching is difficult, on the other hand, not only because of the great responsibility one has for a proper handling of the words, but also because one must be extremely careful … lest the words he speaks … are not the words people hear and the whole experiment collapses.
You are no doubt familiar with the adage that reminds preachers that every sermon he preaches is at least three sermons:
the one he studied for at the desk and prepared to preach,
the one he actually preached in the congregation,
and the one those listening actually heard.
It’s that last one that make preaching difficult.
Matthew chapter 3 is many things. Among them –it serves as a primer for the preacher —with John The Baptist as the example of how to get one’s message across. He was, if anything, convincing.
John arrives in the Judean wilderness in the role of a prophet. He comes in the spirit of Isaiah. His was a “word of comfort” for those who had ears to hear it that way. “Get ready. Good News is coming.” They were convicted of sin, turned from the error of their ways – at least temporarily – and were baptized.
Clearly, John qualifies as a prophet. He is loud. He is obnoxious and he dresses funny.
He won’t remind you of many MODERN-day preachers. But the ones he reminds you of ….are the ones you wish to forget. The Jonathan Edwards classic “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” makes for great fireside reading, but it no longer preaches well.
John’s style is all wrong for our time. My father was a preacher in churches of Christ for 60 years. His style was blunt. His voice was loud. He was somewhat confrontational. He was not particularly concerned about whom he offended with the truth. Truth, by its very nature, he would say, is offensive and if God had called on him to soften it, he did not remember the conversation.
An American writer said, “Never offend them with content when style will do.” In a masterful way that would make any prophet proud, John was able to do both at the same time. In that, I suppose he both “is” and “is not” a suitable role model for preachers today.
Now I want to say a few things about John the Baptist – and by implication about those OF US who teach and preach.
FIRST OF ALL, JOHN UNDERSTOOD CLEARLY HIS TASK.
John’s calling was from conception. I am confident that his father explained that to him as he sent him off into the wilderness. John lived up to his calling. He did not choose his work, it chose him.
It’s not that John found his voice in the wilderness; John’s voice found him. His was a prophetic voice. Matthew says that “John …arrived… preaching” John was already preaching as he walked out of the thicket. Someone reported that and a crowd gathered. They came, and they kept coming. And John kept preaching, stopping periodically only to baptize.
His work was important work …..but it was not the main work. He was to clear the minefields of sectarian prejudice and “loud talk” devoid of follow through. He was not working on his own career path, but on that of the one who was yet to appear.
The Spirit of Prophecy sent John to do some necessary road repair so faith might have a path to follow. “Making the road straight and level” was of no benefit to John. It was of immeasurable benefit to those who were yet to walk to the Messiah on that road of faith. Conversion is fundamentally a work in the human heart that God does through his spirit. John’s preaching was a crucial element in that process.
It was, to be sure, a work at the margins and limited in scope. There was no career advancement available to John. But it was crucial work, and the fate of many depended on it, including, in the end, his own.
There is more. Not only did he understand his task,
JOHN WAS COMMITTED TO HIS MESSAGE
John communicated his message boldly, that is to say clearly. John was a hard man to misunderstand. His speech was devoid of equivocation. His message was couched in stern words. It was an invitation to those who already realized their need for a better way, and a challenge to those who did not.
“You basket full of pit vipers! Who invited you to come out here?” is hard to misunderstand. All the more so when it’s said right to your face. Hardly minced words. We are not surprised to read that he turned off as many people as he turned on.
Harsh preaching comes naturally today to some – probably too many. There is a problem with harsh preaching, even when it is badly needed and delivered directly on target. People don’t like it. Oh, they say, “Boy, you really stepped on our toes today.” They say it with a smile, but those who offer a steady diet of it should keep a U-Haul trailer on retainer.
John would have been quite at home in Austin as there are elements of weirdness here. None of that “market place honey” for him. He’ll dig his out of the lion’s carcass just like Samson. He dressed for shock value. He stood out in Judea. He would blend in here in Austin.
And perhaps one more aspect of John Ministry:
HE WAS NOT HELD HOSTAGE BY ANY CONCERN ABOUT RESPONSES
The popular response to John’s preaching was phenomenal. It may well be that it was phenomenal because it was populist preaching. If John would have had a capable agent and a better publisher for his sermons, he would have lasted longer. His problem was that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Too many preachers today seem not to have that problem.
A calling like John’s will repel people who are committed to doing what they do …….as they have always done it. His was not institutional preaching.
A message like John’s will sound like a lie to people who have bowed the knee to the status quo and whose mission statement includes the word tolerance.
I have said all of that in order to ask one question:
WHAT ARE WE TO DO WITH THE BAPTIST?
Can today’s world be made ready for the Baptist? I mean people like John the Baptist. This was the question inherent in Dr. Deneen lecture recently. He was unable to be positive about the prospects.
On a long list of topics now familiar to us all, the modern church has swallowed the bait of the popular culture , along with the hook, line and sinker, and its pagan affirmations of “Can’t we all just GO along and GET along?”
On Aug 2 of this year the Washington Post carried this headline:
TRYSTAN REESE, A TRANSGENDER MAN, GAVE BIRTH TO A HEALTHY BOY ON JULY 14 IN PORTLAND, OR.
One can hardly read the lines with a straight face. The words don’t even make sense. Yet there was the photograph and online video. The “he” in the story who gave birth was, of course, biologically a female who was choosing to live as male. The “she” in the story was biologically male but from all physical appearances chose to play the softer female role in the couple’s life.
Where is John when we need him?
Laws restricting the taking of the life of an unborn child meet with strong resistance. Even the dismembering of children who are in the process of being born is seen as an act of compassion for the mother for whom another child would be, well, an inconvenience. Support for this Philistine barbarianism is widespread in some segments of both the secular and religious cultures.
On those topics and others like them, no matter how sweetly we sing the psalm or how softly we state a biblical view, our words will be heard to be just as harsh as were those of John, the Baptist.
John’s message was a call to repentance ……… to a people still capable of repenting. His baptism was what the other gospel writers –and no lesser a voice than the Apostle Paul — call a “baptism of repentance.”
Large segments of our culture, however, may be far beyond any capacity for repenting.
Part of the blame for that must rest with the absence of a “John the Baptist” kind of voice in the public square, but also, and this is worse, in the church.
In 1930 – note the date – John Crowe Ransom published a book titled: God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy. His thesis was fairly plain. Ransom argued that we had forsaken the God of our fathers, the biblical God who smote the hosts of Pharaoh and delivered his poor from the hand of the oppressor, the stern God of an unbending but therefore dependable moral purpose, and we had replaced him with a more congenial divinity, better seasoned to our modern and gentler tastes. We had graven with our thoughts, that is to say, had fashioned forth unto ourselves a God without thunder. This new divinity was broadminded, reasonable and, above all, non-judgmental. (Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Henry Rearden, pp 113 on Ps. 57 ). He wrote that almost 100 years ago.
We may know some preachers who have answered the call to speak for this GOD WITHOUT THUNDER. It is likely that they will gather a great following while having very little worthwhile to say. I shudder to think what John might say about them.
The days have long since passed us by . . . when we can leave the big stick at home and speak softly.
We may choose to speak the truth softly, but the world and the church still need the hard word. And I wonder if we have the nerve to speak it.
The Scripture: Matthew 3:1-10
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”<sup class="footnote" style="box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 0.625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0px;" data-fn="#fen-NIV-23196a" data-link="[a]”>[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with<sup class="footnote" style="box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 0.625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0px;" data-fn="#fen-NIV-23204b" data-link="[b]”>[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with<sup class="footnote" style="box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 0.625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0px;" data-fn="#fen-NIV-23204c" data-link="[c]”>[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Please share this article with others you know by using the social media icons at the top of the page. Also, subscribe to the Christian Studies blog to receive notifications of articles straight into your inbox.
Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.